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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Japanese Religions by Barbara Ambros
  • Heather Blair
Women in Japanese Religions by Barbara Ambros. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Pp. x + 237. $89.00 cloth, $17.00 paper, e-book available.

Women in Japanese Religions provides a chronological survey of women’s participation in Japanese religious culture from the prehistoric Jōmon 縄文 and Yayoi 弥生 periods up through the turn of the twenty-first century. Ambros’s treatment is remarkably balanced: practices and beliefs rooted in local cults, spirit possession, and new religious movements receive consideration equal to that accorded to Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism. At the same time, the book’s historical and thematic breadth, combined with its very manageable length (175 pages of text, plus documentation), means that concision reigns supreme. To Ambros’s great credit, brevity does not entail a sacrifice of complexity. For instance, the chapters consistently alert readers to the diversity of women’s religious lives across regions and social statuses (or what we would today call class), era by era.

As Ambros herself notes, the book presents a corrective to master narratives of Japanese religious history—and here the gendered quality of “master” matters. Over the years, we have heard a great deal about Buddhist patriarchs and male nativist intellectuals, for example, but much less about laywomen or priestesses. In this respect, it should be noted that Ambros’s primary agenda is informational and documentary rather than analytical or theoretical. This book aims to identify and describe women’s religious activities, not to reconceptualize them in a radical way or to overturn established historiographical paradigms other than androcentrism. Thus, many of the chapters raise predictable topics: Himiko 卑弥呼, Izanami 伊奘諾・伊弉冉・伊邪那美, and Amaterasu 天照, in the chapters on prehistory and ancient myth; the Lotus Sutra in the Heian period; Tenrikyō 天理教 in the Edo and Meiji [End Page 201] periods. This focus on established themes works well, not least because it provides a recognizable counterpoint to other introductory surveys. Significantly, however, there are also points where Ambros conveys information that has not been widely circulated in the English-language literature. For instance, I experienced an aha moment while reading the discussion of the government’s purposeful and systematic exclusion of women from the Shinto priesthood during the Meiji period. I had honestly not known that women had been legally barred from holding the office of shrine priest (p. 126). This kind of attention to significant detail means that Ambros’s work holds interest not only to neophytes but also to those of us who would like to consider ourselves experts.

Like her combination of general survey with telling detail, Ambros’s decision to extend the discussion up through the turn of the twenty-first century shapes the tenor of the book in salutary ways. It ensures that we attend to anthropological and sociological as well as historical and archaeological sources. It frustrates, or at the very least complicates, any urge the reader might have to locate authentic religiosity at some point in the past. In highlighting the comparative novelty of practices that have now become conventional (for example, the Shinto wedding ceremony), it also problematizes essentialist views of religion as unchanging “tradition.” Finally, the chapters on the postwar period and millennial “lost decades” clearly track shifts in the ways that Japanese conceptualize and describe their own activities, for example by noting the rise of talk of “spirituality” (supirichuarutei スピリチュアリティ) and “the spiritual world” (seishin sekai 精神世界).

In combination with the volume’s historical reliability, balanced approach, and focus on women, the accessibility of Women in Japanese Religions makes the book important, useful, and unique. Students will appreciate Ambros’s straightforward, readable style, and instructors will be happy to have the list of twenty-one discussion questions following the main text. Paired with primary sources and case studies, the book would work well as a core text for a course in Japanese religions. It would also be suitable for courses on gender in Japan or East Asia, or on comparative women’s history.

Despite this broad appeal, instructors should be aware that the content sometimes belies the book’s introductory tone. The challenge here is most apparent in what I think of as the “first-use issue...


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pp. 201-203
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